I came to bring a sword: Matthew 10.24-39
Our Gospel reading is taken from Matthew, and it reminded me about a story we heard on our recent Chub meeting to Hope. (Chub just stands for Church and Pub). Well, a new vicar had been appointed to St Peter’s in Hope and on his first Sunday he preached from Matthew’s Gospel on the Sermon on the Mount, which was very well received. The next Sunday he preached the same sermon, and a few eyebrows were raised. Believe it or not, on his third Sunday, he again preached the same sermon. There were distinct mutterings in the congregation, and the Church Warden was delegated to have a word with the vicar.
But when asked, the vicar said he would continue to repeat the same sermon until the good people of Hope lived out the message of the sermon in their lives!
Like Jesus, the vicar wanted people to change their lives. Our reading for today, which is also from Matthew, has much the same purpose. Jesus came to change people’s lives, but some of the things we heard in the Gospel reading, we may not have expected. We know that God is a god of love and that Jesus, his Son, came into the world to proclaim that message. But in the passage we read –
‘Don’t think it’s my job to bring peace on the earth’ I didn’t come to bring peace – I came to bring a sword, I came to divide a man from his father, a daughter from her mother, and a daughter-in-law from her mother-in-law.’
Jesus had meant these words to cause a stir.
‘Sons against fathers, daughters against mothers’ – what on earth could he mean? Rejecting parents and children – not peace on earth, but a sword – can this be Jesus himself speaking? What’s going on? How can we get our minds around these strange sayings?
Now the New Testament also has a good deal to say about caring for one another within the family. But some have misguidedly taken passages like these as a licence to neglect their own dependants, to spend all their time on ‘the Lord’s work’. You may have heard it said about someone that they were so heavenly minded that they are no earthly use!
But these are stern and uncomfortable words which we can’t ignore. They echo down the years into the Christian church of today. Think of St Francis, leaving his wealthy home, despite his father’s fury, to go and live a simple life of imitating Jesus as best as he could – and setting an example that thousands still follow today. Think also of those who have faced terrible dangers for the sake of the gospel and have had to send their families to a place of safety elsewhere, while they have stayed to look after a church because there wasn’t anyone else to do it.
Jesus doesn’t say here that everyone who follows him will find themselves split off from their families; certainly not. Indeed, many of the apostles, in the days of the early church, took their spouses with them on their travels. But Jesus is once again talking about priorities, and is making remarkable and quite drastic claims. He isn’t saying (as some have tried to pretend that he was saying) , that what matters is following God in your own way. No. Jesus is saying, loud and clear, that what matters is allegiance to him: allegiance to Jesus must come at the top of every priority list. In our service today we have already heard the words that Our Lord Jesus Christ said:
The first commandment is this: ‘The Lord our God is the only Lord’. “You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength”
‘The second is this’: “Love your neighbour as yourself’”
There is no other commandment greater than these.
As the story in the Gospels unfolds, we see how difficult this was, even for those who knew him personally: Peter denied him, Judas betrayed him, the rest all ran away and hid. But the challenge remains, embracing everything, demanding everything, offering everything, promising everything.
The absolute demand of Jesus brings us back to the Sermon on the Mount. It isn’t the case that there are some fine ideals in the mind of God, and that Jesus just happens to teach them a bit better than most people. Nor is it the case that Jesus came to show us the way through the present world to a quite different one, where we will go after death. No: Jesus came to begin and to establish the new way of being God’s people, and not surprisingly those who were quite happy with the old one, thank you very much, didn’t like having it disturbed.
He didn’t want to bring division within households for the sake of it. But he knew that, if people followed his way, division was bound to follow. We see division in our world today. Terrible things are happening, brought about by hate. Brought about by those who do not believe in a God who teaches us to love, not only our neighbours, but also our enemies, as we love ourselves. But with so much death and destruction we can become afraid and turn in on ourselves; frightened to be the outgoing and loving people that God wants us to be.
One of the most memorable moments for me in recent weeks has been the moving pictures of people giving out roses; people of all races, colour and creed making a practical display of their love and compassion to other human beings. What do you think is the command repeated most often in the Bible? You might imagine it’s something stern like: Behave yourself – -Say your prayers! – Worship God more wholeheartedly! – Give more money away. You’d be wrong. It’s the command we find repeated three times in our Gospel
‘Don’t be afraid.’
Yes, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ The people who gave out roses were not afraid. You can see easily enough why Jesus needed to tell his disciples not to be afraid. After all, he’s warned them that the authorities will be after them; that they will suffer physical and emotional violence; and, that people will start calling them the sort of names they have already begun to call him. So there was plenty to be afraid of! And yet he says, don’t be afraid.
If, as the Gospel is saying, God really takes note of every single sparrow in the sky, and every single hair of our heads, that means that, just as nothing is too great for him to do, so nothing is too small for him to care about it. The message is plain. You are worth more than a great many sparrows; so rest assured that God knows and cares about the details of your life, even as you face the temptations and dangers which are all around us.
Followers of Jesus are bound to experience attacks at all levels. But we must also learn that the one we are serving is stronger than the strongest opponent we will ever meet. If we accept the challenge of Jesus sayings, this is then matched by the remarkable promises he makes to those who accept His challenges and live by them. He will ‘own’ us before his father in heaven, and ‘Those who lose their lives will find them.’
That’s why Jesus’ challenge, to the disciples themselves and, through them to the Israel of his day, had to be so sharp – and it also has to be just as sharp today, where people still prefer comfort to challenge.
So follow Christ, love your enemies, and DO NOT BE AFRAID!
I shall personally be very sad to say goodbye to Julie Downing, our amazing Head Teacher at Bollington Cross School, who will be retiring at the end of August this year. Julie was already well established in her post by the time I arrived as Vicar of Bollington (my fifth parish) in the Spring of 2007. Like my predecessor, I was immediately welcomed by Julie into her school community at Bollington Cross, the closest neighbours to St Oswald’s Parish Church. She and I quickly formed a professional bond of friendship and support, as we shared from time to time the comparable burdens as well as the joys of our respective roles. We have offered one another a listening ear and welcomed the different perspective on particular problems or opportunities, each respectfully offered by a colleague who shares a Christian concern for the wellbeing and flourishing of all people of our community, young and old.
For about 14 years Julie has been the highly skilled and experienced Head here at our local Voluntary Controlled Church of England Primary School, herself a committed woman of faith, and a discerning mentor to many others taking on responsibilities and challenges within the realms of education. She has latterly also served as a wise, stringent but empathetic Ofsted Inspector. In our everyday lives, both Julie and I are required to be visionary leaders and encouragers of others, and to work co-operatively with people of all backgrounds across our community. From the outset I have admired Julie’s constant drive for achieving excellence, encouraging others also to climb to greater heights and to reach their potential, this combined with her willingness to tackle (with persistent good grace) the ever-changing educational landscape dictated by successive Government Ministers. Julie has always kept at the forefront of her mind the needs and welfare of the children in her care, and successive “generations” of staff, parents and pupils have so many reasons to be grateful for Julie’s heartfelt dedication, her obvious delight in all her pupils’ achievements and her good-humoured and painstaking approach to the multifarious tasks set before her day by day, week by week and year by year.
She will be a hard act to follow – principally because it is never an “act” with Julie! She is one of the most sincere and genuinely kind people I have had the pleasure of working alongside, and I will miss her calming and cajoling presence in times of stress! However I do now look forward very much to welcoming Julie’s successor as our newly appointed Head Teacher from September, Mr Yenson Donbavand, whose aptitudes, skill, enthusiasm and energy for the tasks ahead certainly shone through during the intensive interview process carried out by the BX School Governors in April. I’m glad to know that Julie will be leaving Bollington Cross School in excellent hands, and we thank her very much for her enduring legacy of commitment to enabling holistic and truly aspirational education for all our children.
Our amazing interactive Schools’ Experience continues all this week! Members of our congregation are telling the Story of Moses with the enthusiastic help of children from three of our local primary schools! To give you a flavour of the unfolding drama, here is a selection of photos sent to us by their Head Teacher of some of the delightful children from Bollington St John who’ve clearly enjoyed their class visit today.
The Mystery of Three in One
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13 :14) Most of us have known the words to that lovely blessing since we were children, and they do not seem either strange or amazing or radical to us. But that is not how they would have seemed to the first Christians who heard them 2000 years ago.
If those first believers had grown up as pagans, they would have grown up with the idea that the gods were way up there somewhere, but not in the least bothered about the sorrows of humanity, and very unlikely to ever pay you any attention at all, no matter how long and humbly you waited for them. The pagans gods were powerful, arrogant, and indifferent towards humanity. You’ll know the feeling if you have ever rung a big energy company or the BT people, and tried to get through to talk to someone. Total indifference – no love, grace or fellowship there!
If those first believers had grown up as Jews, they would have thought of Yahweh as all powerful and all good and all knowing, but as “up in heaven”, and consequently in his purity and glory unapproachable by sinful human beings. One’s relationship with Yahweh was through careful, humble obedience to the Law. There was love – you only need to read the Psalms to see how much love – but it was in return for your obedience to the Law.
And then Jesus had appeared, with the astonishing news that God so loved the world that he had sent his only-begotten son, that whoever believed in him would not end their life on earth by perishing in their sins, but instead they would be free to inherit eternal life in his presence. The love of God had now sent down the grace of Jesus on the world. Jesus was the Way, the Truth and the Life – all you had to do was to accept him by believing. Here there was staggering love – and boundless grace.
But Jesus on earth could not be accessible to every believer all of the time, and after his resurrection, the work of Jesus on earth had been completed. As he told his disciples, he was going to return to his Father. And so it was time for the third part of the blessing to come into reality: Jesus was not going to leave his followers on their own: he was going to send them the Holy Spirit, who would be with them for always.
The Holy Spirit is described as our Counsellor, who will lead us into truth, who warns us of things, who directs our paths, who sanctifies us. It is God within us, the promise of our future inheritance, the reassurance that we are indeed born anew in God’s kingdom. We are to walk in his Spirit, to listen to his Spirit. It is God’s fellowship with us, boundless, full of love and grace, and there for us every minute of every day.
God’s spirit within us has another implication for our lives. It not only unites us with God, but it is the basis of our unity with each other. We are all of the same family – we share the same spiritual DNA.
For my work over the years, I have travelled a bit. And when you meet people of totally other cultures, it can be hard to establish a point of contact. But I have found, again and again, that when you are both Christians, that contact is already there. I know that Veronica and any of you who travelled with her to India to spend time with the Delhi Brotherhood will have found that same thing when you got there. In my case, I can think of some close fellowship I have enjoyed with some amazing Christians in very unlikely places. I have met them sharing God’s love in the orphanages of Romania, up in the Tien Chan mountains of Kyrgyzstan, in the slums of Nairobi, in the bush of Mozambique, among the poor of Bosnia, and with refugees on the rubbish dumps of Podgorica. In each one of them, the same purposefulness was immediately evident – the grace of Jesus and the love of God was a daily fact in their lives, and they were dedicated to sharing that amazing grace with the people in need around them. Their fellowship was an inspiration to me.
So – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – on Trinity Sunday, the Church celebrates the three-fold nature of our wonderful God. Many great theologians have tied themselves up in knots trying to explain it and probably some have gone mad in the process. But really, I think some things are best understood through merely experiencing them. And maybe the great truth, the great doctrine, of the Trinity is like that. Neither Jesus nor Paul nor Peter nor anyone else in the New Testament ever seemed to feel the need to struggle to explain it – it just was how God is.
In my own experience I sometimes find another useful comparison in the all-powerful yet unapproachable sun in the sky as being the essential force which is vital to life on our planet but which is only accessible and experienced by us humans as the source of light and warmth. Maybe our Creator God could be described as like the sun, Jesus like the light and the Holy Spirit like the warmth we experience in our everyday lives? Well, it works for me!
In the gospel of John, chapter 15, Jesus is very clear about it: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them…. and the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things…”
God the Holy Trinity, Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit: all of humanity is made in God’s image and shares God’s DNA. We come to realise that this is God in his totality eternally loving us, and simply wanting our love in return. Perhaps the real mystery is how hard we as human beings seem to find it to reciprocate that love and to live our lives generously, peacefully and lovingly to all.
YOU and YOUR PET are warmly welcome to join us for…
All Creatures Great & Small
– a special service at St Oswald’s to celebrate & bless our local working animals & family pets on Sunday 9th July at 3.00pm
No matter what sort of pet you have, bring it along!*
We hope you and your pet will enjoy our short service of songs and readings, and a chance to connect with other animal lovers of Bollington & Kerridge.
* (All we ask is that cats & other small animals are brought in
safe containers so that they can’t risk being lost – or eaten!)
Download a poster here
Beverley read out the story of Pentecost at our Family Worship service and the children enthusiastically re-created the “rushing mighty wind”.
The Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles as “tongues of fire.”
Revd David Swales was licensed to our neighbouring parish of St Christopher, Pott Shrigley on 30 May 2017
Canon Veronica (the Rural Dean) is looking relieved that the last of 13 vacancies for incumbents in Macclesfield Deanery over the past three years has now been filled!
picture by Steve Murphy